Washington Hospital Center nurses launch 24-hour strike

Nurses at Washington Hospital Center launch strike after nearly a year of contentious contract talks.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 4, 2011; 11:43 PM

Almost a year of rancorous contract talks came to a head Friday when several hundred nurses at Washington Hospital Center, the region's largest hospital, walked off the job for a 24-hour strike.

To help care for patients, hospital officials flew in 600 temporary nurses from around the country, housed them in area hotels and bused them to the Northwest Washington facility. The hospital also began a media campaign with print and radio advertisements in which it promised to keep the facility fully staffed and operating as usual through the weekend and into next week.

The nurses' contract expired last spring, and the two sides have been at odds since over wages, benefits, staffing and patient safety.

As of Friday afternoon, there were no public indications that either side was willing to make concessions necessary to resolve the dispute.

The strike was scheduled to end by 7 a.m. Saturday, but the union will continue to picket if the hospital follows through with its promise to lock out striking nurses until Wednesday. Hospital officials said striking nurses would not be paid or allowed back to work until then.

"They can't come back to work," said hospital spokeswoman So Young Pak.

The hospital says it is obligated to pay the temporary nurses for a minimum of 60 hours of work.

Union officials say the lockout is punitive and that nurses are ready to return to work Saturday. "They're taking a one-day protest and making it into a five-day war," said Ken Zinn, a union official.

Striking nurses held picket signs and chanted slogans outside the hospital complex at First and Irving streets NW. They wore sweat shirts, hats, gloves and scrubs - all red, the trademark color of National Nurses United, which represents the hospital center's 1,600 nurses and is the country's largest nurses union.

At a noon rally, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said nurses were the difference between a patient's recovery or non-recovery. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) linked the job action to pro-union protests across the country. D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) said the dispute was a local issue and urged a speedy resolution.

Hospital officials said the strike did not disrupt operations at the 926-bed facility. By late Friday afternoon, the hospital had admitted 732 inpatients, had 151 emergency room visits and delivered nine babies - a typical Friday, officials said.

About 300 nurses are needed for each day and night shift. Two-thirds of the nurses scheduled to work the first shift Friday - about 200 - crossed picket lines and reported for duty, hospital officials said. The union said it could not confirm that number.

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